A piece of Her-story: Maria Montessori's study

 
In 2017 I took a pedagogical pilgrimage from the International Montessori Congress in Prague to the site of the original Casa dei Bambini in Rome and then to...
 

Amsterdam:

 

Home of canals, tulips, bicycles, pancakes...
and Maria Montessori's study.


On a long street called Koninginneweg, at number 161, sits Maria Montessori's final place of residence. It was her home until her passing in 1952 and now houses her legacy as the setting for AMI's ('Association Montessori Internationale') headquarters and a planned Montessori Museum. 
 
 
I was accompanied on my Montessori mission by my husband, and Montessori Child co-owner, Andrew. It all felt so blissful that it almost became a little surreal as the two of us strolled from our hotel through the beautiful Vondelpark towards Maria's house!
 
  
As Google Maps informed me that we were nearing our destination we couldn't help but notice the aesthetic beauty and affluence of the area. Upmarket boutique stores, artisan cafes and large residences lined the streets.
   
 
I was immediately struck by the stark contrast between the neighbourhood here, at Maria Montessori's final home, and that of San Lorenzo in Rome where she opened her first Casa dei Bambini. 
 
Here are a few photos of the streetscape directly surrounding the Casa where Maria started her life's work:
 
 
And here is the tree-lined Amsterdam avenue and the stunning four-storey home where she spent her final years:
 
 
It's certainly quite a change in socio-economic atmosphere, but I don't think it represents a contradiction. Maria didn't sell out or forget her roots. In the final years of her life she was advocating just as passionately for social justice and peace, and in fact she capitalised on the platform provided by her 'success' as a way to reach influential audiences to campaign for equity, opportunity and tolerance. The main reason that Maria was able to live in such an elegant home is that her son, Mario, had by that stage married into the wealthy Pierson family and they became, in a way, patrons of the Montessori mission. That personal connection and professional collaboration lives on today, most notably through the Montessori-Pierson publishing company which publishes and distributes Dr Montessori's books as well as collections of her personal writings.
 
So yes Dr Montessori's physical surroundings changed but her values remained constant. Whether in the so-called 'slums' of Rome or the upper-class suburbs of Amsterdam she was committed to championing the needs and rights of all children.

  

Dr Maria Montessori, orating. 
31st August, 1870 - 6th May 1952
Pictured here in 1949, age 79, during the period she lived in Amsterdam.

Maria Montessori passed away in Noordwijk, Amsterdam, while on a family weekend retreat.

 

The incredible woman pictured above used to come home to this doorstep...
 

 

What was once her home and office is now a beacon of Montessori history (or should that be, ‘herstory’, since many of the artefacts reinforce what a robust, powerful and persuasive woman she was).

Speaking of passionate women, allow me to introduce you to our guide through Maria Montessori's former home.

Nina Monfils is an AMI staff member, responsible for Office Management and curation of the Maria Montessori House. 

Nina showed a remarkable dedication to her craft and an authentic, unbridled emotional investment in the work she does. I had been a little nervous before my visit, worrying that my enthusiasm would come across as naive or cloying. I had worried that I might, as my niece would put it, start "fan-girling" like a tween at a One Direction concert. It was, after all, the home of one of my heroes, I didn't know if I could keep my composure and yet I thought that someone who works every day in that environment might find it 'silly' for me to get over-excited. I need not have worried. Nina might be accustomed to being in this house, but she's not desensitised to it. My enthusiasm was matched and raised by hers. The way she guided me through the home, stopping here and there to share anecdotes and insights, made it clear that she feels as privileged as I did to walk through these hallowed halls. 

Nina was as generous with her time as she was gracious in her hospitality. I truly believe Maria would be proud to have Nina as the caretaker of her home. I can't think of a better custodian to help preserve and share the legacy that Maria left behind. Nina embodies many of the qualities that made Maria herself such an influential figure. She balances respect and reverence for history with a strong sense of forethought for the future. Maria took inspiration from her predecessors, such as Seguin and Itard, and then considered the context around her to develop her own ideas and create the best possible experiences for children. Nina is similarly eager to appreciate the work that AMI has achieved already but is willing to then look at the current climate, including technological and social advances, in order to determine what the next steps should be. Nina, and her peers at AMI, are eager to keep the Montessori movement in motion rather than letting it stagnate. They are seeking creative ways to utilise the Maria Montessori House to , whether by rejuvenating it as an interactive museum with multimedia content or injecting the garden with the energy of culture and creativity by making it a space for a collective hub of artists and authors. My simplistic summaries probably don't do justice to the vision of what could come to be in the Maria Montessori House, but suffice it to say - 'watch this space'! In the meantime, let's get back to what is already present...

Maria's watchful eye glances out across the back garden. It is easy to imagine the woman herself sitting in this space, basking in the glory of nature as a means to restore her energy or collect her thoughts. 
 
 
  
Andrew looks slightly more cheerful than Maria in the photo below - perhaps because a woman such as herself would have had no time for 'selfies' when there was so much work to be done! Years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Phyllis Wallbank, a student and close personal friend of Maria herself. Phyllis told me that Maria was irked by the celebrity status she eventually attracted and often lamented "I point at the child and they look at my finger" (she was, perhaps, either knowingly or unknowingly paraphrasing the expression "When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger").
  
 
A step inside from the garden takes you to the library that archives the texts written by, and relevant to, Maria. This is a newer modification, as the space was originally used by a concierge to help service the adjoining kitchen. 

 

I am an unashamed bibliophile (or 'book nerd'!) so it was like heaven for me to stand in this room, surrounded by words. It is hard to comprehend the volume of wisdom, insight and information printed on the pages sitting upon these shelves.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It was fascinating to see some of the aged, original texts that sat on the shelves but towards the end of my tour I invested in some of the newer titles that have recently been released by the Montessori-Piersen company. To stand in Maria's library combining two of my great loves - Montessori and books - was surely one of the most unique and memorable highlights of my European adventures. 
  
  
We departed the library and began to head up the steep, narrow stairs. We paused at the landing for Nina to point out one of the interesting - and humanising - features of Maria's home; an elevator. It is now being used as a storage cupboard but Nina explained that Maria used it for its original function as she was an elderly woman by the time she entered this home, living here in her 70s and into her early 80s. And she was, of course, human. Sometimes it is tempting to forget that she was mortal. Her discoveries were so profound, her influence so immeasurable, that it is all too easy to deify her. Recognising her humanity, her innate 'normality' as just another person, does not undermine her achievements. In fact it is quite the opposite - appreciating that she was a mortal woman, not some sort of educational goddess, makes her achievements seem all the more remarkable. She had the same basic cognitive and physical equipment as we all do, and look how much she did with it. Surely that is a call to action like no other. 
   
  
We left the elevator storage unit behind and turned to face the passageway to Maria Montessori's study. My heart was beating quite fast at this point. It's my adult Disneyland, and I was about to reach the summit of Space Mountain!
  
 
As we walked along the hallway a quick glance to the left reminded me of one of the building's modern purposes as the headquarters of AMI and teacher-training space. Montessori materials were on display on the way to meeting and training rooms. 
  
 
And then we had reached the end of the hall, with the door to Maria's study just to the left, and a collection of her prized possessions before me. 
 
 

Here we found Maria's own library - the collection of books that she kept close to hand when working and writing. I'm not sure if most tourists in Amsterdam get their photos taken in front of a cupboard of books, but this image is now one of my favourites from the trip.
 

 
The wall opposite the books was adorned with a copy of a portrait* of Maria in her graduation garments. And only a glance away - the robes themselves!
  
 
 
I had to restrain myself from trying to pose in such a way that it looked like my head was coming out of the robes as though I was wearing them! 
 
Feeling giddy already from my brush with the books and glance at the graduation garb, it was time to fulfil even more of my Montessori dreams by actually stepping foot inside Maria's personal study...
 
Let's go through and take a look around...
  
 
And here is where my "fan-girling" came to fruition! As a reference point for my excitement, imagine a young woman standing in Paul McCartney's living room at the height of Beatlemania. Here I was, standing where my idol stood. I could practically feel her presence in the room, each piece of furniture or token object imbued with her being. 
I felt most drawn towards her desk - the place she sat whilst preparing her lectures or speeches, where she penned letters to family and friends but also to influential world leaders. Where she opened the incoming letters that expressed admiration or invited her to speak at public forums, political events, congresses and conferences.
 
 
As I contemplated the great works that had taken place in this exact spot I found myself on the verge of placing Maria on a pedestal - treating her as that 'goddess' - until I spotted an unexpected and humanising detail...her ashtray! Nina informed me that Maria was quite a heavy smoker and that it was not unusual for her to sit at the desk smoking as she composed her correspondence. This little idiosyncrasy, this oh-so-very human habit, reminded me again that Maria occupied the same realm that we all do. (And Andrew, who still smokes despite my gentle encouragement to quit, took great delight in announcing that perhaps I couldn't complain anymore since he's in such good company! I appreciated his attempt at "if it was good enough for a world-changing, genius doctor..." logic but I'd still prefer if he and Maria didn't share this hobby!)

  

 

And so I imagined Maria at her desk, building the image partly from pictures I've seen of her posing mid-prose...

   

Maria Montessori - 1913 - age 33
 
 And then I took a deep breath and a seat...behind her desk. Yes. I sat at Maria Montessori's desk. Just for a moment and with a deep sense of reverence, I sat in the place of this woman who I admire so much. It was surreal and special and I'm so grateful that I had that opportunity. 
 
Me - 2017 - age 30

  

Nina informed me that much of the furniture in Maria's study had been relocated from her former home in India. She spent 7 years living in India after a brief trip to the country for a training course turned into an unexpectedly long stay when the outbreak of World War II saw her interned as an 'enemy alien' by the British colonial government. She was unable to leave India until the war was over, at which point she was free to return to Europe. While her extended time in India may have been unplanned, and outside of her control, she showed her typical strength and resilience by using that period to continue her collaborations with her son Mario on developing the adolescent curriculum and to publish further texts. It seems appropriate, then, that the furniture she acquired during her time as an 'enemy alien' is surrounded by portraits, photographs and plaques that prove how wrong the British government were to view her as a threat rather than the champion of peace and civil rights that she truly was.

  

  
 One of the photographs on the wall looked strikingly familiar, and I remembered that it's an image I've seen many times. As my eyes lingered on the photo I am sure that Nina did identify the particular event for me but unfortunately my memory betrays me and my little notebook (in which I was eagerly recording Nina's pearls of wisdom!) offers no insight. I have done some research since returning home and based on this I believe it is likely that the image depicts Dr Montessori's address at the UNESCO conference in Florence as the date of the image, 1950, corresponds with that gathering of world leaders. Regardless of the exact event it is evidence not only of Maria's influence on the world stage but also her vitality and passion even in her final years of life. This photograph was taken two years before her passing, when she was already 80 years of age. It is also important to remember that this was in 1950, and Maria was born in 1870, and as such the average life expectancy, and the social expectations of senior citizens, was much lower than it is today. I therefore see Maria not only as a pioneer in the field of children's rights but also an advocate for the rights, dignity and capacity of our elders. With that in mind, I have no doubt that she would have been immensely proud to see the way that her work is now being applied to the context of aged care. This adaption is occurring world-wide but here in Australia there is particular momentum due to the vision of 'Montessori Australia' who have opened a branch called Montessori Ageing Support Services (MASS). This is a topic that is close to my heart as my Nanna, who sadly concluded her beautiful life several years ago, spent her final years in an aged care facility due to the high dependency care needs that are an inevitable aspect of Alzheimer's. I wrote about Nanna, and how she taught me deeper empathy for my elders, in my blog post 'Dignity and Dementia are not mutually exclusive'. 
 
A photograph from the same event:
1950 - 2 years before her passing

The photo above certainly only illustrates Maria's presence on the world stage, and her position as a role model to keep living your life no matter your age, but there is one final element that captured my attention and my heart. If you look closely at the photograph (and it is much more striking in the particular image on her wall, which has a wider perspective of the crowd) you will notice that sitting behind Dr Montessori are rows and rows of men. There are a few female faces dotted throughout the audience but the predominant presence is undoubtedly male. Dr Montessori stood before a sea of (somewhat stony faced!) men and with courage, confidence and conviction she delivered her message. This was at a time where the audience in this image was a fairly accurate depiction of the balance of power in society as a whole and particularly in fields of power such as politics. She therefore deserves a place not only as a pedagogical pioneer but also as somewhat of a feminist icon. 
 
Her credentials as a game-changing, ground-breaking feminist were on display again as I looked to my right at another wall of her study. Here I saw a cabinet filled with medals of achievement and gifts from respected dignitaries. Framing this case are a series of parchments that represent Maria's various degrees and qualifications. Sitting front and centre, directly above the cabinet, is the one that most proudly waves the feminist flag... 
  
  
Here is Maria Montessori's degree from the University of Rome which certified her as a doctor of medicine in 1896. It might be hard to tell from here but there's something very unique about it. Let's take a closer look...
   

Here is Nina's finger drawing our eye to the one subtle but significant detail that made Maria's parchment different from the one received by every other member of her graduating class...

  
Even when I zoom right in you can barely see the distinction (which is why I feel so honoured to have been able to see it in person) but if you look just to the left of Maria Montessori's name you can see the word 'Signor' (Italian for 'mister') as part of the standard template printed onto the certificate. And then, squeezed in almost imperceptibly between the printed word 'Signor' and the hand-written name 'Maria Montessori' is a hastily added 'a'. A single letter that meant so much as it transformed 'Signor' - mister - to 'Signora' - madam. 
 
Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy. The university had never before needed a 'Signora' option - the default was 'Signor' because that was all they'd ever needed. She literally broke that mould. 
   

During this post I have repeatedly returned to the theme of remembering Maria as a real human, not as a divine deity. Let us now think of her as a human woman. She was the lone human woman in her medical school (which she attended against her father's wishes and after attending an all-boys' school in her earlier years so that she could focus on science and engineering instead of deportment and home economics). An element of the medical degree involved dissecting human cadavers and apparently Maria was made to perform this work in the morgue alone at night as it was deemed inappropriate for her to be in the presence of the male students while they examined naked bodies. It seems those gentlemen were intelligent and possessed enough to perform autopsies yet somehow far too sensitive to and weak-willed to stomach the idea of doing so with a lady present. This was just one example of the discrimination and isolation that Maria experienced as a result of her gender. Nobody deserves to be ostracised from their peers simply because of what is in their pants and yet that was her daily reality for many years. I can't even begin how that would have felt to her. There were powerful patriarchal forces attempting to push her down, but she continued to rally and rise above it. She held her head high and persevered. As a woman I know I owe an enormous debt to Maria Montessori, and to my other female predecessors, who set the very first stones when paving the way towards gender equality. I expect access to education, employment and equality in my life today but I can only reach these opportunities because I stand on the shoulders of giants. 
 
Interestingly, Maria's brush with gender stereotypes in medical school has an interesting counterpart just a few steps away amongst another series of framed certificates...
 
 Here we find a photograph of Maria and her only child, Mario. Mario was not raised by Maria in her early years but they reconnected early in his adolescence and forged an intense bond that saw him become a close confidant, collaborator and champion of the Montessori movement. Beside the photograph is Mario's certificate from completing the Montessori teacher training course. 
 
  
 In the seventh line of the main body of text you might notice a little black mark halfway through the sentence. This was the attempt to cover up the letter 's' to hastily alter the word 'she' to the word 'he'. Mario was, like his mother, a groundbreaker and (somewhat ironically!) the standardised certificate for Montessori Training had to be altered to fit a person who decided to think outside the box. 
For both Maria and Mario it was a single letter that represented a seismic shift in dismantling gender stereotypes. From 'signor' to 'signora' Dr Montessori showed that women could be doctors, and from 'she' to 'he' Mario proved that men could be teachers. Together they were living evidence that all people have the potential to embrace the life path that they choose. 
    
 
Given Maria's achievements as a feminist pioneer, an innovative educator, a passionate peace keeper, an advocate for human rights and a persuasive orator it is no wonder that she was highly 'decorated'. Her cabinet contained an impressive array of medals, ribbons, awards and gifts that acknowledged her remarkable contributions to society. 
  
 
 As I peered through the glass I caught sight of a piece of insignia that had only recently become familiar to me - the French Legion of Honour. This accolade is the highest French order of merit and shortly before my trip to Maria's study it had been bestowed upon my 94 year old Grandad, Jack Davis, in recognition of his valour during WWII (you can watch him becoming very emotional about the honour in a video here). I was delighted to see that my Grandad is in such good company, with Maria herself being an undoubtedly worthy recipient of this prestigious acknowledgement. 
   

My granddad, Jack Davis.
 
And then, turning away from her cabinet, I discovered that I was back where I had started, facing Maria's desk. My journey around this little room filled with tremendous treasures had come to an end. All that was left to do was to sign the guest-book, joining the list of names of other Montessori wanderers who had made the pilgrimage to this place. 
  
 
And so I took a final moment to breath in all that I had absorbed and observed in this study. A sense of Maria as a real person, yet an appreciation that now ran deeper than ever of just how extraordinary she was. These four walls, and the collection within, made her feel somehow simultaneously saintly yet simply human as her letter from the Pope sat mere metres away from her ashtray. This treasure trove could have easily put her on a pedestal and yet it also shared her humanity, warts and all, in a way that makes me more grateful than ever. You see, she was not the Patron Saint of Education, endowed with a mystical ability to understand children or a predestined fate to transform the world. She was a human woman who put her heart, soul, intellect and inextinguishable energies into her work until that 'work' became a mission. She found her purpose in life and she effortfully strove towards it, guided always by a moral compass that kept her heading towards what was right not what was easy. This energy, this attitude, this vision is as admirable in isolation as her achievements are in totality. You do not need to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (as Maria was - thrice!) for your determination, passion and purpose to make a difference in the world. Mahatma Gandhi, who visited the Montessori schools in Rome in 1931, once said that you must "be the change you wish to see in the world". This is precisely what Maria did. This courage and conviction, this passion and perseverance, reminds me of another remarkable woman in my life - my Montessori mum Barbara. This is not the time or place for me to list all of mum's accomplishments (she deserves better than to be a mere footnote in this post!) but suffice it to say that I know her more intimately and thoroughly than any other human on this Earth and I can say without reservation that she embodies all of the remarkable characteristics that Maria displayed. Mum is a ground-breaker, an innovator, an advocate, and an endlessly generous soul who works tirelessly to improve the lives of others (both professionally and personally). It is people like my mum who carry on Maria's legacy not only by implementing her teaching method but also by emulating her vision and values.
How honoured I was to visit Maria's study - how blessed I am to come home to my mum. 
       
 
  
Before we could leave the study Andrew stepped out from behind the camera to stand beside me as I eagerly clutched the two new books that I had purchased from Nina as a memento of my Montessori moment here in Amsterdam.
  
  
And then it was time to say farewell and step outside... 
 
   
I walked away from the Maria Montessori House - the headquarters of the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) - not only with my books but with a question on my mind:
 
How can we continue to contribute to this collective Montessori mission?
 
This has two meanings for me...
 
One is in a specific sense; How can Montessorians around the world help to support the project of developing Maria Montessori's former home into a formal museum?
One way is by donating to AMI's fundraising efforts - learn more here.
Another contribution you can make is by voting with your feet - by visiting the site as it is you are able to reinforce what an important Montessori monument it truly is, which can help to make its development a priority within an organisation that is juggling lots of goals and projects.

The other meaning is in a broader sense; How can each and every person who has been positively impacted by Montessori help to ensure that this opportunity is afforded to others?
If Montessori has inspired, guided, influenced or empowered you - whether as a child, a teacher, a carer, a parent or a family member - then why not help to pay it forward?
 
I'm so proud that I have the opportunity to spread Montessori magic in my own classroom and through this platform here at Montessori Child.
 
I am also immensely grateful that I've had a chance to introduce my husband, Andrew, to the Montessori philosophy. He has embraced the principles of this unique approach and I have seen him incorporate many of these ideas into his own life and his interactions with the children we know. If we have a child of our own one day then I have no doubt that his parenting journey will be supported by his knowledge of Montessori. I'm so grateful that he was with me for the Congress and for our Montessori journey around Europe. I am incredibly blessed to have a life partner who thoroughly supports and embraces my passions...and who has the patience not only to spend several hours watching me meticulously examine every inch of a single room but also to then (several months later) cook a delicious dinner for me tonight while I sit at the kitchen table for another few hours documenting that experience! 
  
  
 If your own journey ever takes you all the way to Amsterdam, and you too would like to step foot inside the former home of Dr Maria Montessori, you can find the address below along with a link to AMI's page that explains how you can contact them to make an appointment.
  
Happy travels!
Koninginneweg 161, 1075 CN Amsterdam, The Netherlands
 
*For more information about the portrait please read page 8 of this amazing and highly in-depth tour of her study. It also contains some amazing explanations of specific objects and details hidden within her study (some of which I've mentioned here, others I was unaware of). 
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